Is belief in God the same as belief in Father Christmas?

Often, people make the comparison between God and Father Christmas. After all, you can’t see either of them. Some people believe in him, most people don’t. They both see all – weighing up your good and bad deeds – and decide to reward you based on how good you’ve been, so the argument goes. And, the clincher, both are essentially myths that bring people a bit of comfort and joy with not much behind them in the way of evidence.

But the parallels are really only there for those who wish to force them. Drawing a link between God and Santa Claus because you can’t see them is weak indeed. There are lots of things we can’t see that nonetheless exist. For example, consider time, emotions and history. All things we can’t see but all things that every sane person accepts exist. Not being able to see something does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Nor is existence determined by the number of people that believe. As it happens, if it were determined by the numbers, theism wins. There are more theists in the world than atheists and agnostics. But, of course, these things aren’t determined by the numbers. Even if we insist that “experts” get to decide, truth is still not determined by majority rule. For a long time, the overwhelming majority of people believed stomach ulcers were caused by stress or terrible lifestyle. Barry Marshall won a nobel prize proving that view wrong, insisting that he was repeatedly told – and held by the majority – to be entirely wrong. That is until he infected himself with bacteria causing him to get a stomach ulcer and then curing himself. Truth is not determined by majority rule.

But God is not like Father Christmas. For one, few adults come to believe in Santa. It is common for children to believe the myth and then, as they grow older and examine the evidence, it becomes clear Father Christmas is (spoiler alert) not real. Compare this to the multitude of people who grow up to examine the evidence, having never believed in God before, who come to believe in him as adults. Then there are the people who are taught about God as children who never shake their belief in him. You will be hard pressed to find anybody who subscribes to the Father Christmas myth later on in life.

Beyond this, we need to compare the behaviour of God and Father Christmas. Santa is a distant figure who watches the world and rewards people based on their deeds once-per-year. But the Christian God is the one who cares about his world and entered into it. Glen Scrivener helpfully explains here:

God is not a moralist, like Father Christmas, who rewards you based on how good you are. Instead, he is a gracious father who gives us the very opposite of what we deserve. He doesn’t hold out rewards based on whether we please him with our behaviour, he gives us good gifts because he loves us.

The fact is, most people grow up to disbelieve in Father Christmas not out of a lack of evidence for his existence but because of the positive evidence against his existence. Most stop believing in Father Christmas the moment they catch their mum or dad wandering into their room with a sack full of presents.

Even if that clarifying moment never comes, most begin asking questions that defy logic. How can he fly around the world in one night and deliver all his gifts? How does he get down chimneys when he is so fat? Why has nobody ever seen a flying reindeer (or Father Christmas himself)? Why are parents OK with a stranger wandering into kids rooms at night at Christmas but no other time of year? There are good reasons to actively disbelieve the Father Christmas myth. People don’t reject it because of the lack of evidence but as a result of the overwhelming evidence that he doesn’t exist.

By contrast, those who come to believe in God – and particularly the Christian God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ – do so as a result of the evidence they find compelling. This isn’t evidence that is simply poured into them as children that they never managed to dismiss, many come to believe entirely apart from being taught it as children.

Then there are the questions. Where do morals come from? Is it more likely that the universe has always existed or that it has a cause? Is the fine tuning of the universe better explained by necessity, chance or design? What explanation best accounts for the the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances and the origin of the Christian religion? Many conclude that the evidence points in the direction of the existence of a real God. They conclude it is the answer that has the widest explanatory power for all these questions, the least ad hoc of all available explanations.

Now, you may not accept that God exists. You may not believe the best explanation to those questions is to posit God. That is entirely your prerogative and for you to assent to wherever you believe the evidence points. But please give theists the same courtesy. Recognise that they too have weighed the evidence and drawn the conclusion that God, indeed, exists. Acknowledge that coming to believe in God based on an assessment of the evidence before us means, whether right or wrong, that belief in God is evidently not the same as belief in Father Christmas.